He Runs the Moon

Wendy Brandmark

Tales from the Cities - Denver, The Bronx New York & Boston-Cambridge area

Sample Passages

  • Irony

    Phil had almost refused her. His writing workshop was overbooked, but by the end of the day he felt too weary to resist. Jane Wood was not even attractive: a small tight face on the end of a bony body. He should have known what to expect; she did not plead or flatter to get into the class.
    ‘Mr Rosen?’ not even ‘Professor’ or the mistaken ‘Doctor’. When he nodded, she shoved the registration card in his direction as if he were a machine.
    Phil Rosen, the sole novelist in the English Department’s tiny creative writing program, respected by his colleagues and students because he could be counted on to produce a book every two years. He wrote about married professional men having affairs with young women in New York, in Los Angeles, in Denver, where he now lived. Phil’s heroes sounded much like him, although he was careful to change hair and eye coloring. His wife Carol and the wives in his novels wore identical housedresses and hung with the same unappetizing flesh. He dedicated all his novels to Carol.
    The local library carried one of his books, and occasionally the back pages of the New York Times Book Review mentioned his newest novel. ‘Life hasn’t given me all its cookies,’ Phil liked to say with a sneer.
    But he was lucky, he told himself, to have a secure academic job in these times, lucky too to be handsome and youthful in middle age. A big man with broad shoulders, thick wavy hair, a ‘Jewish Rock Hudson’ one of his lovers said.
    With each freshman class, he found a new mistress, usually in his writing class, for whom he was mentor, father and seducer. Although he would say they seduced him, coming to his office for criticism and the like.
    Phil hardly noticed Jane Wood in the first week of class. Never very good with names, he referred to her once as ‘the girl in black’. At this she said her name loudly as if he were both deaf and senile. ‘Wooden faced’ he thought but forgot her for a time. In the beginning Jane did not say much.
    Phil was intent on another, Julie, a golden skinned blonde. He criticized her story mercilessly but at the end of the hour when he could see the beginnings of tears in Julie’s bewildered eyes, he began to point out certain possibilities, room for improvement. Phil was hoping this would send her to his office before the weekend.
    ‘What do you think of the grandmother?’ he asked the class, a calculated question.
    ‘I don’t really know her. I mean her character is not really developed,’ offered the ex-marine, an innocuous lad whose crew cut was growing into a hedge.
    Phil nodded with satisfaction, the second week and already they were picking up his words. ‘Yes I agree with that and the character traits which are given don’t fit together.’
    Julie’s eyes remained fixed on his face the whole time.
    ‘I wonder if this character is based on a real person?’ Julie shook her head with a frankness Phil found idiotic. He wondered if her mind would turn him off physically.
    Then she said it, Jane Wooden or whatever her name was. ‘Why does that matter?’ She had not even raised her hand.
    Phil broke in immediately. ‘I have never known a character to work which was not based on a real person. In all my experience,’ he added humbly.
    ‘How do you know that all of Tolstoy’s characters or Joyce’s were not made up?’
    Phil’s smile emerged a sneer. He was going to give a rational explanation with historic examples but something about her tone upset him. ‘It won’t work, I can tell you.’
    Jane did not argue the point further. The class ended in silence. As his students stood up to leave, Phil’s foot was tapping involuntarily as it did on the accelerator pedal when a driver cut out in front of him.
    Afterwards he sat alone in the empty classroom, too apathetic to gather his papers and leave. When students for the next class began to file in with puzzled expressions, he was jolted to his feet.
    Julie came that afternoon with her story, asking for advice. Phil felt assuaged. She had changed into a sleeveless dress; her hair was pulled back by two tiny clips but a few golden strands fell on her smooth forehead. She was charming. And had talent, if only she would stop writing about wrinkled old women.
    ‘Write about what you know.’
    Julie perked her head up as if he had coined this advice. ‘It’s only the second story I’ve written,’ she said in her defence.
    Yes, the course was open to anyone practically; soon he’d be getting geriatric lady writers, the ones he taught at night in his hungry days.
    After their initial disagreement, Jane Wood became more vocal in class. When she wasn’t arguing with his judgements on a student’s story, she brought up odd questions, ones he could neither answer nor laugh off although he tried. Why didn’t she smile at him, even at his poor jokes? Her small hard face incongruously framed by brown curls never relaxed.
    The ex-marine brought in a story about boot camp. Two soldiers shared the local prostitute one night and found each other better company. There was just a tinge of homosexuality in the story, enough to make Phil feel broad¬minded about praising it.
    ‘But I don’t care about either of them. I don’t like the main characters,’ Jane said.
    ‘That’s not the point,’ muttered the ex-marine.
    Phil waited for once, hoping the rest of the class would finish her off, but they looked to him. What did they know that wasn’t his?
    Do you sympathize with these men? I think we’re supposed to,’ Jane asked him.
    No he didn’t but he was not going to make it easy for her. ‘I can and do admire a piece of fiction objectively for its merits.’
    ‘But shouldn’t our hearts and minds be involved?’ Jane spoke with absurd sincerity.
    Yes, this had been his intention as a young writer, but more and more, Phil grew disdainful of his creations.
    ‘It’s a matter of opinion.’ He drew the class’s attention to the next story.
    At the end of that week Jane handed him three stories. At last he could pick apart her words in front of the class, regain his hold. For he was losing them gradually. There were signs. The ex-marine no longer accosted him after class with plaintive questions: ‘Why do you write? How do you know when you’re professional?’
    Even Julie, that relationship was not progressing as rapidly as he wished. They were still at the discussing writing stage, still had not left the confines of his office. Phil grew tired of her questions which artlessly flattered him. The freshness which attracted him at the beginning, he saw as gullibility.
    One quick reading revealed flaws in Jane’s stories: stilted dialogue, unbelievable twists of plot. Phil felt relieved but rereading was struck by the main character in each story: a young woman who spoke to herself in a stream of brilliant images, sentence fragments. It was as if an exotic bird flew out of her mouth, that set critical mouth, singing wild, high-pitched songs.
    Phil always tried to separate the student from the story in order to judge impartially, but he could not stop thinking of Jane’s desires. Was she not embarrassed to reveal herself, or would she hide behind the writer’s ploy? ‘That is not me, not really.’ A ploy with truth.
    In workmanlike fashion Phil dismembered each of Jane’s stories. The class was good that day, echoing his criticisms like a chorus. Phil wondered how Jane could sit there so cool and silent while the crescendo built. He waited for her protest but when it came at the next meeting, he was surprised.
    Phil began by praising the interior monologue in one story about a murder. Jane stared at him with just a hint of a smile as if she scorned his conciliatory words.
    ‘But the actions of this girl don’t make sense in view of what she tells us about herself.’ Phil wished she would stop trying to out-stare him. ‘Someone who professes to be so passionate would not let herself be victimized so easily,’ Phil concluded.
    ‘You missed the irony,’ Jane said.
    ‘What irony?’ Phil looked around the table for smiles, but found none. She does not even know the meaning of the word.
    Jane began to point out sentences, whole passages with so-called double meanings; passion turned to passivity under her scrutiny.
    ‘You see?’ she demanded. One by one the students around the table began to nod their heads in agreement.
    Like dogs, Phil thought.
    ‘A story is not a puzzle. For the irony to work, it must not be obscure,’ he said.
    ‘It’s not, is it?’ Jane looked around.
    ‘I don’t think we need to discuss this further.’ Phil felt ashamed of himself. He noticed Jane exchanging sympathetic smiles with the other students. He couldn’t believe he had lost so much.
    At the end of the hour, when Julie came up to ask if he had time in the afternoon for a conference, Phil turned away with a brusque ‘no’. What was he doing making love to a girl of eighteen who believed everything he said, while another had challenged his right to sit in judgement?
    Phil left the classroom before everyone else. His body felt cumbersome as he strode through the campus to his office. There he sat through the afternoon, trying to read student papers, picking up, putting down a new journal and finally looking out at the dead blue of the sky.
    In the next office, two of his colleagues were planning the annual spring departmental outing. Phil picked up the journal again. Someone in Texas had written on the ‘Ineluctable Modality of the Visible in Virginia Woolf’. He could never read this stuff. No academic he, you couldn’t call yourself one without a doctorate.
    Phil sat up in his chair. He was a craftsman. A wordsmith carefully creating little boxes for little people to pop their heads out of at predictable moments. Phil focused his attention out the window again.
    Jane startled him appearing so suddenly on the other side of his desk. Had she watched him stare at nothing through the window, as though with sightless eyes?
    ‘Are you busy?’ she asked. Was she mocking him?
    ‘Sit down,’ he said.
    ‘I don’t agree with any of your criticisms of my stories.’
    ‘Well, that was obvious today,’ he smiled in what he hoped was a fatherly way.
    ‘I was reading your comments; they don’t really tell me anything but your opinions.’
    ‘I can’t tell you how to write your stories if that’s what you mean.’
    ‘I’m not asking that. It’s just that you don’t really read the stories, you have preconceived ideas. You’re very opinionated in a certain way.’
    ‘Yes I do have opinions. Students have always found my judgements very helpful.’ He laughed to keep above her, to make her a child throwing tantrums.
    ‘You dominate the whole class. Everyone’s afraid to say anything.’
    Phil watched her mouth as she said this, a wide mouth, ‘generous’ he would have described it in his earlier novels before he was sensitive to being called trite. Phil wanted to strike that mouth; it offered none of the solace for which it was intended.
    And then, he felt excited – why when she was flat chested, had no ass, was a stick figure he used to draw for a woman? If only the desk wasn’t in the way.
    Jane was talking, but Phil could not listen for he knew he must calm himself down, look out of the window. The moment passed. He was able to deliver a mildly patronizing statement: ‘Young lady, you have a chip on your shoulder. None of my students have ever complained.’ He saw her flinch at this as if the charge had been made before. In her vulnerability she became desirable again.
    Jane stood up awkwardly; for once she had trouble meeting his eyes. Phil moved from behind the desk as she walked toward the door. He caught her by the arm, jerking her towards him. Before he could reach her face with his lips, Jane gave him a quick push and he had to step backwards to regain his balance. She was out of the door.
  • The Denver Ophelia

    Ruthie buys her clothes off the backs of other women. I say, ‘My mother would die if she saw me in here.’
    ‘But she is.’ Ruthie puts up her hands. ‘Dead.’
    ‘Can you be nicer about it? It’s only been a year.’
    We’re in the death throes, the last stages of writing our dissertations, what she calls ‘our dissembling’. She’s been here for five years finishing.
    After hours spent gleaning and writing, we meet up in the afternoon beneath a sky blue as the virgin’s dress. Dry blue with never a tear. ‘Heaven’s hell,’ Ruthie calls Denver.
    She drags me to the Salvation Army store on Colfax, a wide, loud street where cowboys still roam. The store smells of sweat and disaster. I keep to the doorway while Ruthie rummages, then emerges with something muddy colored. Even her underwear comes from there.
    Then we eat lemon meringue pie and try on hats at May D & F, Denver’s genteel department store. The hats are my idea, big floppy things in white veil or straw. I laugh with her when we look in the mirror together, but secretly love myself in these hats rising and dipping around my face like huge flowers and me the center.
    ‘Can you even imagine wearing this back home?’ She turns from the mirror in a hat with a cascade of silk daisies. The brim seems to point to her big nose and firm chin.
    She stares at me in my large white veil floppy, and her face grows sad. ‘You look cute in that.’
    ‘Cute’ is not what I want to hear, so I shrug off the compliment.
    ‘Really,’ she says.
    We’ve been lured to this shadowless city by fellowships. She’s Manhattan, I’m Queens; she lords it over me because Queens is not really the city, but a suburb aching to join the clamour of downtown. Even so Ruthie has made me her best friend. I must not forget her voice breaking through the hard dry days of my first year here.
    But there are secrets she will never know about me. I keep a postcard in my bedroom of a woman drowning in a riverbed of flowers, so peaceful now that she’s given up the struggle. Lydia, who shares our office, gave it to me after I admired her print of Chatterton on his deathbed beneath a casement window.
    ‘It calms me just to look at him,’ she said. A week later I found Ophelia on my desk. I had to take her home because if Ruthie ever saw, she would say how decadent.
    Lydia is one these graduate student prairie women who wear long dresses and boots and talk about pregnancy dreams. I have never had a pregnancy dream, but in the night my mother stands on the other side of the door pounding. I wake to silence and then I know what Lydia means about the calm. Ophelia, Chatterton. In their dying hearts is the finality I long for.
    I have another secret from Ruthie which I will never share with anyone. I am in love with Professor Levine. What shames me is not that he’s my advisor or that he’s married, or even that he’s twice my age and probably shorter than me. How could anyone but the most pathetic fall for a skinny, white-faced man with a pendulous nose and wisps of eyebrows above his Denver blues? That’s what I call them for they are relentless. When he sneers at my little ideas and gives me one of his sideways grins, I feel elated, his sarcasm like an embrace. I imagine us in bed together, me caressing his bald head, his arms around me, the two of us like skeletons dancing; for I am, in my mother’s words, ‘a bony wonder’.
    Ruthie makes do with men. She sees John, a big guy with a beard down to his waist who wanders around the department telling everyone he’s becoming a Jew. She doesn’t mind him using her to gain entrance to the ‘land of Canaan’ as he calls it, or his stink.
    We’re on one of our jaunts down Colfax. Ruthie’s just bought a black full-length slip she pulled out of one of the boxes of underwear at the Salvation Army. She came right out of the dressing room wearing it in front of all the creepy guys. Just to show me. They took no notice, the downcast ones picking through racks of brown winter jackets. Only the young guy trying on stilettos grinned at her. I’m wondering when Ruthie will wear her slip since I’ve never seen her in a dress.
    Still she’s feeling good. When I pause in front of a store I haven’t noticed before, a tiny place which catches me because in the window is my Ophelia, a full size mannequin dressed in white and covered in flowers, Ruthie agrees to go in even though she’s ready for cake.
    Inside the tiny dark room a young woman in a floppy straw hat sits at a high counter working on something. She puts whatever it is away and gives us a slow smile full of misshapen teeth. I sniff the air but smell only velvet and the incense the woman is burning near her busy fingers.
    Ruthie does a bit of flicking. ‘Will you look at the price of this?’
    ‘Are these second hand?’ she asks.
    ‘Second or third,’ the woman says.
    Ruthie whispers to me that this is a resale store where women try to make a profit from fancy dresses they’ve only worn once. She doesn’t want to stay.
    I imagine myself in one of the gowns walking into Professor Levine’s office, my skin as white as his against black velvet. I shake my head free of this for I have not bought a dress or skirt for years. Skirts come up short and dresses hang on me, wrinkling where they should fit, folds of material over my emptiness. Tears come to my eyes. I will look like a badly clothed scarecrow.
    Ruthie sighs. She says she’ll wait outside. ‘Precious, so precious,’ she whispers loud enough for the woman to hear.  But I know why she hates it in here. She has to feel like a discoverer in the murk of other people.
    I have a session with Professor Levine the next day. For once he does not criticize what I have written, but says something which confuses me. I haven’t told Ruthie that I’m working on the final draft of my dissertation and can see the end. She’s been stuck for two years on her final chapter. She goes to Levine only to whine.
    He’s sitting there in an open white shirt, sleeves half rolled up, his legs stretched out. His smile is almost friendly though I take care with what I say for he loves to make fun of me and then turn cold when I too become playful. I was almost late because I dressed for him and today I wasn’t right in anything. I settled for my boy jeans and black tee shirt, hoping the sight of my pale face with hair tied at the neck will make him think Pre-Raphaelite because I’m certain this is the look he craves, a sad-eyed reed woman like the belle dame of his favorite poet. But he doesn’t notice me as a woman. I’m just a mind to him and not a very good one.
    Suddenly he’s talking about Jane Eyre’s quest for transcendence, and I’m thinking that I would have to insert whole sections, bringing the dissertation up from its dungeons of desire. ‘But that means changing everything, doesn’t it?’
    He gives me one of his kryptonite looks, eyes fixed on me, thin mouth quivering because he’s poised to make one of his sharp little comments which will hurt me, but then in retrospect have a pleasing tenderness, like a healing wound which tickles. He says nothing, only shrugs and indicates our time is over. ‘I suppose I could do it,’ I say, but he’s looking out the window as if I’m already gone.

Sample Information


Longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2017

In these tales from the cities Wendy Brandmark explores lives of seemingly ordinary people trying to make their way in typical American cities.

In The Denver Ophelia section, the stories are set in the rundown Capitol Hill area of the city in the early 1970s. This paragraph hints at the central theme of this section.

After hours spent gleaning and writing, we meet up in the afternoon beneath a sky blue as the virgin’s dress. Dry blue with never a tear. ‘Heaven’s hell,’ Ruthie calls Denver.

Wendy Brandmark has a wonderful way of describing twists in relationships, between lovers, girlfriends, students and teachers, writers and their manuscripts and even one between a troublesome car and its owner and how a person experiences fear. From it emerges not a realistic portrait, but a state of mind, a narrative of a city of odd contrasts and obsessions, of East coast refugees, misfits desperately out of place under Denver’s clear blue sky.

The stories in The Borders of My Self focus on childhood and coming of age, and are mostly set in New York. Wendy Brandmark makes the Bronx in the 1950s and 60s come alive. Many of the characters are somewhat damaged but this is never spelt out fully. The symptoms are lucidly described, but the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

A sense of Jewishness pervades throughout this section and shows how this generation has suffered and carries the burden of what happened ‘over there’, that is Europe in the 1940s. In one story, vividly and disturbingly, a man is abused in his very own home.

The judge said they tortured me, turned me into an old man. How could I tell him, they set me free?

The last section He Runs the Moon is set in the Boston area in the 1970s and this final quartet of stories focusses again very much on the fragility of human relationships. Events in life are balanced on a knife-edge and can so easily take a turn for the worse.

Be transported to the world of an obsessive dental hygienist, an unlikely holiday romance, the peculiarities of the members’ room in the local museum and the occupational hazards of sharing ‘a dull green clapboard house in rooms which seemed to pitch and heave’.

The Stories

The Denver Ophelia

The Denver Ophelia
My Red Mustang
The Palm of the Mind
Come With Me
A Spiritual Death
The Book Thief

The Borders of My Self

The Stone Woman
The Blessing
Man with a Newspaper
The Borders of My Self
Where Have You Been?

He Runs the Moon

The Other Room
Fairy Godmother
He Runs the Moon

He Runs the Moon was launched on Wednesday 27 April at 7pm in the Master’s Room of the Arts Workers Guild, 6 Queen Square, London.

You can read My Red Mustang on the Lilith Magazine website.

Wendy Brandmark on How Cities Have Become Characters in Her Fiction – interview with Yona Zeldis McDonough in Lilith Magazine.

£10.99 – $19.00
You can buy He Runs the Moon now by clicking on the ‘Buy this book’ button on this page. Your card will be debited in your local currency.

If you want to order in any other way, please email the publisher.

Professional reviewers & bloggers, please email the publisher if you would like a review copy.

Wendy’s Brandmark’s novel The Stray American is also published by Holland Park Press.

ISBN: 9781907320606
Number of pages: 215
Price: £0


‘Brandmark’s writing is economic and elliptical, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. The stories are wonderful cameos of the human condition.’ – Kate on goodreads.

‘With almost psychological acuteness, she introduces us to a series of personal vignettes, each character presenting a snippet of life, almost always in transit.

Brandmark’s style is rich, smooth and heady with the allure of classic story telling at its finest. There is a wonderful, sensual undertone, even in the most mundane situations.’ – Adele Geraghty in Gold Dust No 30, p25

‘The vibrancy of locale of the three main cities here draws the reader from one story to another, not unlike how a skilled novelist may string chapters together in succession.

In ‘The Other Room’, the dentist as a protagonist is striking. Her inexplicable obsession following a no-show customer at her downtown office make for an unforgettable read.

The reader will be reminded of how much meaning and substance can be conveyed in such a small space through the words of an individual who knows and respects her own craft.’ – TF Rhoden on Sabotage Reviews

‘An interesting collection of sometimes strange and disturbing, often mystical and occasionally subversive stories based around a theme of US cities.’ – Kate Jones on The Bookbag

‘The selective but rich details in each story make them distinct and memorable with their characters coming to life. Each story is focused and targeted on its plot so it feels exactly the right length.’ – Emma Lee on her blog.

‘Many characters have extraordinarily rich dreams that embody fears and dangers and desires in ambiguous, threatening fragments.

Irony’s tale of a sexually predatory male teacher of creative writing transcends itself and becomes a symbolic rejection of patriarchal authority.’ – Jack Messenger on his website and on Compulsive Reader

‘He runs the Moon is an excellent collection of stories, giving voice to the people of these cities and in so doing to the cities themselves.’ – Ali Hope on Heavenali

‘The stories are diverse, interesting, and unputdownable! I just loved the ways in which Brandmark explored the themes of relationships and displacement. She deftly captured the emotional and physical experiences related to emigration – in whatever form it may be.’ – A Bookish Way of Life